EYES WIDE SHUT: An Interview with Photographer Luo Yang

vor 3 years

EYES WIDE SHUT: Sensual Uncertainty with Certain Sensuality
An Interview with Luo Yang

Taken from our Fräulein F/W ’20 Print Issue ‘Leben’ 
By Carole Panet

What is the essence of trust? With trust as the substrate to her photography, Luo Yang’s sensual chronicle of young women circles around issues of identity and representation in a world of accelerated hyperreality. Her work is characterized by a deep interest in human relations. In our interview, she gives insight into her practice and what is most essential to the experience of being a woman. A meditation on the power of empathy.

How did you become interested in taking pictures?

LY: It all started when I was a college student and I had this camera borrowed from my friend, I just started to shoot people around me, my friends and my roommates. At first it was more about the exploration of the medium, then I gradually realized I had a passion for it. I found this passion to be something I’d like to take as a career.

There is something very specific about the medium of photography because it allows you to be responsive to the surroundings with a sort of detachment, yet it has such immediacy to it. How do you approach the act of photographing? How do you make the space of vulnerability comfortable?

LY: At the beginning, it was not a very hard thing to do because the subjects in my photography were my friends and we were having fun together. Later on, I started to also shoot strangers. The key is about building trust to make both the photographer and the subject relax, to put them in an environment where they can fully be themselves, to make them feel comfortable. A lot of the work is shot in their own homes or places that they like. Before starting to take pictures a very important thing I do is to talk, to open up and to be honest, to make friends. Building up trust is an important premise to be able to make someone feel less vulnerable, to let them expose a very true side of themselves.

So it’s about building a relationship, finding moments of intimacy through the frame of a conversation and letting these moments of connection reverberate through the frame of an image. Can you expand on the idea of ​​reflection – how do the experiences you capture affect you, what comes back to you in meeting people? What is intimacy for you?

LY: The qualities that I seek in people are honesty and authenticity. The people I shoot might be very different from me, but at least we are both willing to open up to build this trust, to find a connection, that’s the point where we can build everything else on. I have received some feedback from people saying that when they look at my work, they feel as if the girl is looking into their eyes and talking to them and they feel touched or very close. They feel this intimacy between themselves and the girl in the photo, and that’s exactly what I feel between me and the people when I take pictures.Personally speaking, I think it’s a very rare quality that requires totally opening up to the other person and in return you receive … It serves as a kind of support and it makes you stronger, it makes you more comfortable, it makes you more at ease; however, this is something really rare and hard to get and very… just precious. I get to see a lot more possibilities of life through the people that I encounter. I get to see their lives and a part of myself is being reflected in that. There is no single definition, nothing to judge or to describe what their lives are. I just get to see and to learn how different and how precious and real everybody’s life is. That meant a lot of personal growth in the past decades of shooting.

There is this sense of warmth and nonjudgemental approach you bring to photographing your subjects. Your portrayals of girls transmit both a feeling of determination, yet something remains in the realm of vagueness. What might their life be about, what do we expect the photograph to reveal? How do you navigate the question of agency?

LY: I have thought about this before, I guess it’s never possible to really know and to present the entire life of someone. What I can do is to use my photos as a medium to present a small segment or several moments of what I see. At least those pieces are authentic parts, the state that they find themselves in at a time and at that point I was able to capture them. However, some girls post photos of themselves on social media that might appear to be quite different from the ones I took. They want to present themselves in a certain way, they want people to look at them in a certain way. It’s a kind of reversed way of showing their life. The former is how I see these girls through my eyes, and the latter is how they perceive themselves. There are degrees of authenticity in both, which is very interesting, because we do have many ways of presenting ourselves.

Especially in your more recent work, I found the inclusion of ornament to be quite conspicuous. What is your concept of womanhood?

LY: To explain the ornament you might see in my photos, these elements are not staged, the things and objects actually belong to the girls themselves. The most I do is that I might just pick something out from a pile of things at the girl’s place that I think might match her. I think I try to approach womanhood in a more broader sense, or I try to observe women not from a specifically feminist perspective, but rather I see them as ordinary human beings. I was never a feminist and I wouldn’t call myself an advocate of feminism. I don’t try to clearly distinguish women from men or the male. But I think the things that I see in women is this combination or vulnerability and toughness, this is womanhood for me. These qualities touch me a lot and this is what I try to capture.

You pick what’s already there with a gesture of emphasis rather than alteration. I was wondering if spontaneity is an important aspect to your work?

LY: Yes, that’s exactly what I hope to do, just to find rare touching moments with spontaneity, to find those moments in the very casual state of women.

One of your series is titled “The world has kissed my soul with its pain, asking for its return in songs.” Would you like to share its story?

LY: This quote is actually a good example and a very accurate summary of what I felt when I took those photos. No matter what the girls are perceived as by other people, or whether they did something controversial, when I shoot them, I see the beauty in them and I have a tolerant attitude. There is a group of photos that I took of a girl named Jillian. She has burn scars all over her face and body caused by her ex-boyfriend; it was big news on Chinese media at the time. When I shot her, she had these scars; however, when she looked at my camera, she kept smiling and I could see her eyes and she had this light in her eyes and I found that really beautiful illustration of strength and vulnerability.

I noticed that the environment juxtaposed to people attest to the flux of movement or a state of transience – what is your motive behind this dialogue?

LY: These landscapes or environment settings for me are something like starting points as they do represent a part of China, perhaps a very real side of China. Sometimes, you get to capture the unrealistic moments of reality, like magical realism. How that appears in my work is not even intentional, but the collusion of these two elements create an interesting chemistry. I can see the absurdity of the whole society developing at too fast a speed; this not only concerns urban space, but also the economy. Somehow, people think of money as the only purpose in life. You see places where old buildings are torn down and they started to build some real exaggerated new architecture under the name of development, to only name one example. Underneath those new and fancy exteriors, you sense its instability, you sense something is not solid, something is quite off. Everything is too fast and that’s what perhaps has shown in the background of my work.

That almost answers my last question concerning your perception of the present. It’s striking that your work is pretty much devoid of any digital artifacts, there are almost no cell phones. Are you interested in nostalgia? Are you fantasizing about going back to a state prior to hyperconnectivity?

LY: That is a very good question – something I have never consciously thought or realized before. I wouldn’t say that I’m a very nostalgic person, but I guess I subconsciously avoided such elements because I try to focus more on the very primary states of subjects as persons, I try to dig into something that lies within the human. Digital products or technological stuff are rather unimportant when it comes to revealing inner worlds of a subject. I wanted to present their emotions and feelings, this very natural state of them as a human. I think it’s not really about this abstract consciousness. Perhaps these kinds of elements will appear more naturally in my upcoming works because, in the end, they are a reflection of the subject’s real life as well.

Taken from our Fräulein F/W ’20 Print Issue ‚Leben‘ – 1 out of 11 cover stories
Interview by Carole Panet
All images courtesy of Luo Yang 

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